It can be a bit flip to say, “Just buy Microsoft” but it tends to be true in law firms. The Microsoft Office suite of business applications is a core technology for nearly all Windows PC-based law practices according to the last decade and more of ABA Legal Technology Survey reports. There are many varieties of Microsoft Office, however, and the most useful will be one that includes Microsoft Outlook.
In early 2015, the most likely options are Microsoft Office for Home & Business and Office365 for Small or Midsize Businesses. There is also Microsoft Office for Business Premium (adds the Access database) and Office365 Business Essentials, and a variety of other Office365 options. Some of the Home-only and Office365 options do not provide either full copies of the Office Suite for you to install or Outlook. Adding complexity, you can buy cloud-based Microsoft Office365 that does not come with apps to install on your devices so if you go to the Microsoft cloud, get a license with Outlook.
On its surface, Microsoft Outlook is an e-mail program but it is also what was once referred to as a personal information manager (PIM). Whether you use it by itself or with others, it can capture information about individuals and activities that you can then easily access in the future. To use it with others, you will want to also have Microsoft’s Exchange e-mail server (hosted by you, someone else, or in the cloud). Similarly, if you use a cloud tool like Google Apps for Work, there is a central server to enable your sharing with others in your firm.
It bears repeating that Outlook isn’t the only game in town, by a long shot. But lawyers have adopted it significantly more than any other PIM, based on responses to the ABA Legal Technology Survey over the years. There are a number of good, free, often open source options to Outlook that are worth a look if you are not purchasing the Microsoft Office suite otherwise. Mozilla’s Thunderbird with the Lightning extension is a good example of a free option to Outlook’s feature set.
There are other PIM and dedicated contact management applications available too. You may use Google Apps for Work in the cloud, which comes with shared contacts and calendar tools. Or your law firm may use a case management or practice management software application that has these functions built-in or integrated.
The obvious uses are to create a new contact record for your new client and also an appointment. But you might create contact records for the neighbor – have you represented her before and so have a conflict of interest? – and other parties involved in the matter.
You might even be at a large firm that has splashed out for dedicated customer relationship management (CRM) software. This can help you to connect the dots if two people from the same company call different lawyers at the firm. CRM software frequently offers workflows to ensure you follow up with current and potential clients, and keep track of all the interactions you’ve had with them.
Like most software available to lawyers, there is almost always a cloud version to consider. Zoho’s CRM app is one of many apps Zoho provides in the cloud, and it integrates with Microsoft Outlook, Google Apps for Work, and others. At $12 a month for their standard edition – free for a lite version up to 3 users – it may be a way to get started with CRM beyond just flat contact management. CRM is an area where large law firms may opt for a law-specific application, like LexisNexis Interaction or Cole Valley’s ContactEase.
Workflow is another term of art that may be worth clarifying. It’s the idea of triggering an action based on some other action. When a complaint comes into your law firm, it’s not just picked up by the first person who sees it, and responded to. Instead, the complaint is probably noted on the calendar and client file and forwarded to the responsible lawyer.
That is a workflow: the receipt of the complaint triggers a calendar item, a client file update, and interoffice mail. These can be automated processes that supplant the need for a person to remember to repeat steps over and over again. Like templates, these automatic processes replace repeated make-work but, unlike templates, are usually built in to the system itself.
The data in a CRM system can help you analyze the types of clients you aren’t getting and why, and to understand how you might or might not change your services to attract and keep a different clientele. For example, if someone calls about a matter and doesn’t pursue it with you, you might follow up to see if they pursued it with another firm. This is sometimes known as a tickler. Or, if they call back in 12 months with another matter and do engage you, you can talk to them about the earlier contact and understand their decision-making around hiring a lawyer.
Customer relationship management isn’t just a technology. You don’t have to buy anything special to do it. Even if you aren’t using CRM software, putting details in your contact management software can help you keep in contact with the client after the matter is over (Christmas or birthday cards or firm newsletters) or provide a basis for identifying people who might use your services in the future. Once data is in an application, it can be used for other purposes within your law practice: mail merges for address labels or insertion in document assembly systems to eliminate duplicate data entry, for example.
At this point, you may just be getting collecting bare bones information from your prospective client, enough to stay in touch in case you need to reschedule. It can pay to get enough details at this point – beyond just name and telephone number – so that you can keep different “Mr. Smith” contacts separate and, potentially, know if you have been in contact with someone who may not become a client or even show up for the first meeting.
The next step will be to meet with the client and understand their problem in greater detail. You will also gather more information to enable you to know whether you can proceed and what the options might be.
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